River Wissey Lovell Fuller

De havilland

October 2013


A friend of mine worked for deHavillands as an aircraft designer.  He joined as an apprentice and spent his entire career with the company.  When he retired he worked as a craft teacher, and a group of boys asked him what he had done in the past, so he told them with some pride of his time with deHavillands.  To his surprise and disappointment they said they had never heard of the company.   Not altogether surprising to my mind bearing in mind their age.

Very recently, however, I was talking to a fifty year old engineer and a little to my surprise he told me he had never heard of deHavillands.

It is surprising that an organisation that pioneered in the aviation field, produced some outstanding aircraft, and at one time employed tens of thousands in factories and design and R&D offices all over England as well as in Canada and Australia, should have faded from peoples’ consciousness so quickly.

The company was founded by a leading British pioneer aviator Geoffery deHavilland.  Born in 1885 the son of a vicar, he left school at 18 and spent a further three years at an engineering school.  Initially keen on automotive engineering he had a few jobs mainly concerned with engines, but was soon attracted to the new field of aviation.  He built his own plane, this was not very long after the Wright brothers early flights.  He sold that and built a second.  He was then engaged as chief designer for a company by the name of Airco.   He was responsible for the design of a number of planes used by the RFC in the first world war, all of his designs had the letters DH before their name.  When Airco decided to cease operating in the aviation sector in 1920, Geoffery managed to borrow the money  to buy their equipment and set up his own company at Stag Lane, near Edgware in North London, where there was room for an airfield, not far from the RAF field at Hendon.  The name Stag Lane became well known in aviation circles in the thirties.  He built a series of planes with the name Moth, probably the most famous was the Tiger Moth, a two seat biplane that found service as a trainer in the RAF for many many years, a significant number are still flying.

He was very dissatisfied with the aero engines that were available, and in 1926 he established an engine division of the company to build his own engines and this led to a series of engines bearing the name ‘Gipsy’, after the first Gipsy  there was the ‘Gipsy Major’, ‘Gipsy Six’, ‘Gipsy Queen’ et al.

In 1933 the company moved their operations to an airfield at Hatfield, whilst retaining the site at Stag Lane.  The modern Art Deco style offices along the new Great North Road at Hatfield became a familiar sight.

The aircraft company really came to prominence in 1934 when they produced a twin engine racing plane, ’DH 88 Comet’, a beautiful little two seater with retractable undercarriage, powered by Gipsy engines, that went on to win the London to Melbourne race, finishing 8 hours ahead of the American DC2.  It was, of course, a record time and the whole feat was quite sensational.

Also in 1934 they produced the ‘DH 89 Dragon Rapide’, a twin engine biplane air liner.  This model was fairly widely used on short haul trips like London to Paris, and could be seen every day at Croydon airport, and has appeared in one or two episodes of Poirot.  The Rapide went on to find useful service as part of the transport fleet of the RAF in WWII.  A number of Rapides are still flying, at IWM Duxford they regularly offer pleasure trips in a Rapide.

Throughout this time Geoffery acted as the company’s chief test pilot. A major factor in the success of his designs.  In 1938 he decided that he could produce better propellers and established a Propeller Division within the company, producing a variable pitch propeller, they also developed a constant speed control device.

In the lead up to WWII the company did not respond directly to the specifications issued by the Ministry, they decided to produce their own ideas for a war plane.  Supplies of aluminium were limited and companies building aircraft to Ministry orders had priority.  The highly successful Comet Racer had employed a lot of wood in its construction and that experience led deHavillands to consider using wood again.  The end result of their thoughts was the ‘DH Mosquito’, a plane that was a descendant from the Comet and also utilised an amount of wood in its construction.  His design was shown to the Air Ministry and, rather reluctantly, I believe, they agreed to fund the design.   The Mosquito first flew in November 1940.  It was immediately obvious that this plane was a winner, powered by two Rolls Royce Merlins, the performance was outstanding, at one time it was the fastest of all WWII planes of any nation.  It was developed as a bomber, a fighter, a ground attack aircraft and for reconnaissance, it was often used as a bomber and for reconnaissance unarmed, relying on its ability to outstrip any enemy fighters.  Without doubt it was the most versatile plane of the war and was responsible for many outstandingly successful missions.  Flying at low level and high speed it could take enemy defences by surprise and bomb with a high degree of accuracy, famously they bombed the wall of a prison in order to enable some captured resistance workers to escape.  Flying low it was more able to locate the target and act as pathfinder marking the target for the heavy bombers.  In full bomber guise it was capable of carrying a 4000lb bomb load and was a significant bomber in its own right.  The bomb load of a B17 Flying Fortress, the mainstay of the US forces in Europe, was 6000lb; three Mosquitos, each with a crew of two had as much destructive power as two B17s each with a crew of about eight.  (Of course neither were in the same class as the mighty Lancaster with its20000lb capability). The fighter version with four cannon mounted in the nose had considerable fire power for use against enemy aircraft, submarines or ground forces, later it was also fitted with wing mounted rockets.  Arguably it was the most successful all rounder of the war and played a major role.  Large numbers were made, not only in the UK but also in Canada and Australia.  Some were supplied to the US air force

Surprisingly, whilst the Spitfire and Lancaster are still remembered well and are names familiar to  most people today, the Mosquito has been forgotten by many.  Its contribution to the victory deserves much more recognition.

Towards the end of the war a single seat fighter development of the Mosquito, the DH Hornet appeared, that too showed considerable promise but it arrived rather late.

In 1943 the Engine Division was established as a separate company.

(To be continued)

Ron Watts

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